As a full-time photographer for iStockphoto I get a lot of questions about microstock photography, some of them general and some of them specific to what I do. I thought it would be a good idea to create a post with a lot of those questions … so here goes!

What is “microstock”?

Microstock is a model of licensing royalty-free content via the internet at low prices. Many of the images are sourced via crowd-sourcing and started off as having mostly hobbyists and amateur photographers providing the content. It’s grown into so much more … many photographers involved with microstock are full-time professionals, but pretty much anyone has the chance to break into the industry. For more detailed information take a look at the wiki on microstock photography.

What is “Royalty-Free” (RF) stock?

“Royalty-Free” is a term that defines a type of license. It basically means that the customer who licenses the images can use the file for as many projects as they like for an unlimited time period without having to pay any additional royalties. Usually the content that is being licensed can also be used by other customers, so the same image may appear in several different companies advertisements or projects. It’s important to understand that “RF” and “microstock” are NOT the same thing. Most microstock is licensed under an RF agreement but traditional stock companies use this license with their content as well.

What is “Rights-Managed” (RM) stock, and when would someone want to use it?

A “Rights-Managed” licensed is used for content that needs to be controlled. For example, let’s say one of the top-tier computer companies wanted to use a particular photo for a campaign, but they want to make sure that their competitors don’t use the same image. By using a RM license y can secure the image for a specific used and specific time-period, and if they want to continue using the image then they would be required to renew the license when it expires. RM licenses are typically much more expensive than RF licenses, and their cost is dependent on several factors such as time being used, how the image is used, etc.

Which microstock sites do you contribute to?

I’m an exclusive contributor for, which means I only license royalty-free content through that particular website.

Why do you only license your images through iStock and not any of the other microstock agencies?

In 2006 when I discovered microstock I initially started out on five or six different microstock sites. After a few months I was making some money through iStock (just a little, but more than the other sites), and also learned about their exclusivity program, and set my sights on that. I was making barely any money on the other sites so it wasn’t a very big deal at the time to just go with one agency. But there are other reasons now that will keep me exclusive with iStock … the biggest one is that I make a lot more royalties as an exclusive contributor, exclusive images cost more than non-exclusive imagery and they have other collections (Vetta™ and “Exclusive Plus”) where the images cost more money to license. The other reason is that it takes so much time to upload images. There’s a lot involved with keywording and categorizing images and it’s very time-consuming … even for just one site.

How do you upload images to iStock? Is there any software that you would recommend?

I use a really amazing piece of (free) software called DeepMeta. If you upload images to iStock then I HIGHLY recommend that you give this product a try. It’s available on both Mac and PC, and makes uploading a breeze. Plus you can prepare a lot of your images ahead of time and then upload them whenever you like.

Aren’t you afraid of having “all your eggs in one basket”?

How many people in the world have one job? I’m gonna guess that the majority of people out there rely on one company to hand them their paycheck, right? I’m also gonna bet that everyone reading this email knows of at least one person who has been laid off or fired because of budget cut-backs at their place of employment (I can think of at least three friends of mine right now). Licensing my images through one microstock agency alone might seem risky, but, in my opinion, the entire microstock industry would have to collapse for me to lose my income. iStock is the biggest company out there, plus they treat their contributors well and I’m doing my part to keep myself alive. So the answer is no … I’m not worried about having all my eggs in one basket. :)

What is the royalty structure for photographers on iStockphoto?

With iStockphoto if you are a base contributor (have sold less than 250 images) or non-exclusive then you make 20% per sale. Exclusive contributors earn more based on the amount of images sold. Here’s the break-down with all of the royalties for photographers:

Base: 1-249 downloads = 20%
Bronze: 250-2,499 downloads = 25%
Silver: 2,500-9,999 downloads = 30%
Gold: 10,000-24,999 downloads = 35%
Diamond: 25,000-200,000 downloads = 40%
Black Diamond: 200,000 + downloads = 40%

NOTE: The iStock royalty structure changed at the end of 2010.

Do you still own the copyright to your images?

Yes, I own the copyright to all of my content on iStockphoto. I’m only using their services as a way to license my images … they are basically the agency I use to do all of the work involved with sales and marketing.

Since you’re exclusive with iStock can you still enter your photos in contests and/or use them for personal use?

When I signed up for exclusivity on iStockphoto I signed up me, as an artist … not just my individual images. This means that I can’t give away any of my photos for free (under an RF license), and so I’m always careful when I post my images to other websites, including contests. Many contests require that you give them an “eternal” RF license to your image, and that’s a no-no with being exclusive to iStock (I’m not too fond of it personally, too). I don’t really enter any contests anyways so for me it’s not a big deal, but if I do then I’m always sure to read the fine print. I can, however, use my images for personal use as much as I like. This means I can use them in books, on my blog, etc. and it’s not a violation of my agreement with iStock.

Do you have a second job?

No, not any more. I started my iStock journey while I was still enlisted in the U.S. Navy, but started making enough money to be able to get out of the military and do this full-time. I am also an author and do make some money from that, but I rely on my iStock earnings to pay all of my personal bills, studio rent and business expenses.

What types of microstock photos sell the best?

This really depends on the photographer. If you look through my portfolio you’ll notice that I have a lot of people photos, along with a good amount of food images as well. This works for me, but everyone has a different style. There’s no right or wrong answer … but iStock’s website has some tips on what to focus on and what to avoid.

How much money do you make?

Yes, people ask me this, but my answer is … sorry, I don’t talk about that information. Microstock is a very community-based industry, and I share a lot about photography, but asking this question is similar to asking any other person what their paycheck is. This is one of those things I keep to myself.

Well then, can photographers really make money with microstock?

Yes, I do, and I know many other photographers who make as much or more than I do. But this isn’t something that happens overnight. It’s important that you understand photography really well in order to be successful, and even then it still takes a lot of time and work … read this blog post of mine, “The Reality of Being a Microstock Photographer” for more info on this.

What is your best-selling photo?

This image right here is currently my best-selling (in downloads, at the time of writing this article).

Is there a way to see what people (customers) are searching for and buying?

No, I have no clue what people (in general) are searching for or want to find. I know what images of mine are downloaded each day but it’s not always obvious what keyword they used to find it (in most cases). iStock also doesn’t release that information … it’s up to the photographers to try and figure out what the customers want without having all of the details.

Do you know who licenses your images and how they are used?

No, not unless they either tell me or I find my image in use somewhere. I do know what images of mine are licensed, but I don’t always see how they are used. It’s possible that not all of them even get used in a final product, or are used in-house in a company so I’ll never even know about it. The more images I sell the more I see used though … it’s mostly just a numbers game. If you have photos of people then you are more likely to find out about your images being used either through them or through people they know.

Do you pay your models? How much do you pay them?

I started out working with a lot of models doing TFCD when I first started on iStock, but found I would really only get the images I wanted if I paid models for their time. I still do trade with models (with no pay), but don’t usually do work for their portfolio (unless they are wanting to get into commercial modeling or are just happy to model for free). When I pay models it’s usually around $10-$30 (USD) per “shooting” hour, and it also depends on their age, level of experience, how much they add to the shoot, and my relationship with the model (if we’ve done work together in the past).

How do you get people to sign a model release for microstock?

When I explain what I do to potential models I disclose everything I can possibly think of so they know what they are getting into. The last thing you want is someone to change their mind after not knowing all of the details. If you are using someone else’s likeness to profit from then it’s only fair and ethical if you tell them everything they should know about the business and how the images might be used.

When you set up and photograph a particular concept (a full photo-shoot) how many images do you usually end up using?

Well, when I photograph people maybe around 30-60 useable shots, but it all depends on the concept, how many models, location, etc. When I photograph food it’s usually a lot less since I’m working with only one setup with minimal changes that can be made. There’s really no magic number here, but I am trying to be more selective about the images I “pick” to edit and upload to iStock.

What are these “iStock events” I see you blog/Twitter about?

A few times a year I attend iStock-sponsored events called “iStockalypses” and “MiniLypses”. They are either iStock or contributor-organized photography events with location, models, and other iStock photographers taking part. They’re not workshops—we are mostly on our own with pre-set locations and models and the entire purpose of these events is to create stock imagery exclusively for

Do “white background” images sell well? Should I concentrate my shooting efforts on doing these types of shots?

I have some white-background images that sell, but if you look at the entire iStock collection of images there are a lot of people photographed against a white background, which means that market is quite saturated with similar images. And unless you know how to really light a person using studio lights then you should probably just find something else to photograph for the time being. One of the biggest mistake I see with white background images is that the photographer is so concerned with making the background pure-white that they forget (or neglect) to properly light the subject. A properly executed white background image can sell, and I might even do some more of my own in the future, but a properly executed on-location image will sell even better.

What kind of camera gear/lenses/lights (etc.) do I need to make good photos for microstock?

The gear you use isn’t extremely important, but to get good-quality images (from a technical perspective) you should be using an SLR. This will give you better quality images (lower noise, artifacting, etc.) and will also allow you to use different lenses. With that said it’s not the gear you use, it’s how you use it … so don’t think that running out and buying the most expensive DSLR on the market is going to be the answer to making great images. If you’re new to photography start with something modest, and work your way up. Invest in lenses and learn your craft, then take it to the next level.

Do the images on iStockphoto go through any kind of “Quality Control” or inspection process?

Yes. iStock has the highest standards in the industry when it comes to the inspection process. There are people who have jobs with iStock that look at every image coming through and either approve or reject it. They look at an image’s quality (noise, cleanliness of image, white balance, lighting) and also the subject matter and composition and make the decision whether or not the image is appropriate for the site. If an image is rejected then they send you an email with the rejection reason.

What advice would you give someone starting out in microstock?

First of all, learn photography. Microstock is a great place to refine your skills, but you’ll have more success if you already know what you’re doing. Another thing that’s important to know is how to make you images very clean and technically perfect. I’ve had my share of rejections but each time I get one I learn from it. So don’t be discouraged if you can’t get approved as a contributor right away, or keep getting your images rejected.